St. Catherine University remembers Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ’44

Leader. Advocate. History-maker. We celebrate and remember the lifetime work of Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ ’44.

Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ’44 passed away Sunday, October 16 at Carondelet Village in St. Paul. She was 99 years old.

A convert to Catholicism while in college, Mary Madonna majored in sociology and psychology and graduated from what was then the College of St. Catherine in 1944. She went on to study for her Masters of Social Work from St. Louis University, then became a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and began her career in medical social work (then a new field) at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. After obtaining a Master of Hospital Administration from the University of Minnesota, she moved into administration at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis where she ultimately served as president and CEO for 20 years.

After leaving St. Mary’s Hospital, Governor Rudy Perpich selected her to become Commissioner of Health, making her the first woman, non-physician, and religious sister to hold the position. During consecutive terms totaling eight years, she helped tackle smoking and AIDS, becoming a highly respected and successful Commissioner of Health and creating models for the entire nation to adopt in its response to both health crises.

Following her service to the state, Sr. Mary Madona returned to her first love - public health - and became the founding CEO and President of St. Mary’s Health Clinics.  The clinics, which opened in 1992, address a lack of healthcare for those living on the margins. It was her leadership and innovation in public health that earned her recognition as a 2016 National Women’s History Month honoree.

“Sister Mary Madonna’s respect for science, knowledge of public health policy, and spiritual tenderness toward the disenfranchised made her seem unstoppable at times,” said Becky Roloff ’76, president of St. Catherine University. “She was tirelessly generous in sharing her gifts to care for the people of the Twin Cities and Minnesota. We shall all miss her, and celebrate her well-earned rest.”

Throughout her career, Sr. Mary Madonna remained close to the St. Catherine community. A founding member of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health Advisory Council, a trustee emerita and member of St. Kate’s Centennial 100, Sr. Mary Madonna was a trustee of St. Mary’s Junior College from 1974 to 1986 and at St. Catherine from 1986 to 1995 — shepherding both institutions through the merger that would, in 2007, become the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. 

In one of her final appearances at St. Kate’s, as the community opened the 2020–21 academic year, Sr. Mary Madonna was granted an honorary doctorate in letters from the University. She shared her advice for current students: “The most important thing is that students be themselves, enjoy what they’re doing, and do it the best they can.”

Celebrating the Life of Sr. Mary Madonna

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates will host a Zoom gathering to remember Sister Mary Madonna on Wednesday, November 9, 2022 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time.

Click to join Zoom gathering.

A funeral celebration for Sister Mary Madonna is scheduled for Friday, November 18, 2022 at 11:00 a.m. in Our Lady of the Presentation Chapel. This celebration will also be available via livestream.